Revisited Some Time Later
I’m not quite taking this down, but this is a mediocrity.
Better reading would be A Pilgrimage from Narnia, A Comparison Between the Mere Monk and the Highest Bishop, or The Angelic Letters.
I write as someone who grew up first having my father read The Chronicles of Narnia to my brother and me at bedtime (my Mom recounted how Matthew and I were wide awake even when my father was nodding off), then reading The Chronicles of Narnia again and again, and eventually reading practically every essay, book, and story of Lewis’s that I could get my hands on. I’ve read “Dymer” and The Discarded Image and am aware of one and only one major work of Lewis’s that I have not read, a textbook that to my knowledge has not been superseded. I have been told that I write like an Englishman; if that is true, it is much more probably Lewis’s influence than anyone else.
And, as Orthodox, I have written A Pilgrimage from Narnia and backed away from Lewis’s objective of “mere Christianity”. I still respect Lewis, but the Orthodox Church has a great many treasures and some of them are not even hinted at when he presents standard Christianity.
The Abolition of Man is a short book and is my favorite among Lewis’s nonfiction writing. I could wish it were much longer. That Hideous Strength corresponds to The Abolition of Man, at much greater length, and is expressed through masterful fiction instead of the prose argument of The Abolition of Man. For a long time I have considered it the deepest of his fiction.
But I here write another Pilgrimage from Narnia.
Having finally gotten around to finding what to do with free time after some generous time off from holidays and recuperating from sickness (my job and my boss are really good), I reread C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength, in the hope that it would inspire something for me to write. Partway through I imagined a work consisting entirely of questions about how Druidry is envisioned in That Hideous Strength. And in the end I arrived at inspiration for something to write, albeit not something I either welcomed or envisioned.
A physics teacher or show, I don’t remember which, said that the Holy Grail of physics would be a so-called “Grand Unified Theory”, which would essentially mean that everything we know about physics could be boiled down to a set of equations that could be written on one half of a side of a sheet of paper. And something, in a perverse way, is true for ancient Druids. Almost everything we reliably know about them could be written on one half of a sheet of paper. They are almost unknown from historical sources, and almost equally inaccessible to archaeological knowing: one source, cited in the Wikipedia article, says, “not one single artefact or image has been unearthed that can undoubtedly be connected with the ancient Druids.”
Now there were ancient writers about Druids; Roman Caesars had something to say about the Druids of Gaul. But if their accounts were written today, they would be called Orientalist and dismissed even for grounds other than political correctness.
For those not familiar with the label of ‘Orientalism’, I would recall a conversation I sat in on at Cambridge, with German student who was researching for a thesis on 18th century English Orientalist views on China, and a Chinese student. The Chinese student, understandably enough, thought the German student would know a fair amount about China. But she did not, or at least she said she did not. And perhaps the German student was understating her knowledge: perhaps her flawless command of the English language was accompanied by a flawless command of English manners. But she very well may not have known anything real about China: not because she was an academic professional slouch, but simply because Western Orientalist views of China are so far disconnected from life in China that even extensive understanding of China would not shed much light on Orientalism as studied.
Orientalist views are a projection: Charles Baudelaire’s “tout n’est que l’ordre, luxe, calme et volupté” (“there is nothing but order, luxury, calm, and voluptuousness”) really tells us nothing about any of the Asian constellation of cultures, and much about… Charles Baudelaire. Trying to read Orientalist sources to understand the people described is like trying to read a book of dirty jokes to understand the psyche of beautiful women. A “beautiful woman” in dirty jokes is only a projection of male desire, and unrefined male desire at that; beautiful women may exist well enough but their psyches are not to be found from dirty jokes, and Orientalism is far enough from reality that it actually makes sense for a Ph.D. student at Cambridge University, studying English Orientalism about China, to simply not attempt to understand much of Chinese culture: she might have been saving her elbow grease for topics that would actually illuminate her understanding of English views of China, and China and Chinese culture themselves were not among them.
The Roman reports we have of ancient Druids may illuminate something about Rome, although we have much knowledge of Rome already; they are Orientalist and do not tell us much about Druids. And again, what we reliably know about ancient Druids can fit on one half of one side of a sheet of paper.
Now what, in specific, did I find haunting about That Hideous Strength? Not all of it, and for that matter there is much in the book that is not objectionable; Lewis describes it as a counterpart to The Abolition of Man, which is deep and truthful through and through. But there is an occult bent, not entirely hidden, and there was something that made my skin creep this time through when Venus’s influence on Ransom’s house is elaborated by saying that there is a lot of copper to be found around it. A quick Google search later for “Venus copper alchemy” turns up what I already really knew: that there is some identification between Venus and copper in alchemy. (I didn’t go beyond the first search engine results page. Nor am I convinced it would have been particularly wise.) The Melchizedek mentioned is the immortal Melchizedek of alchemy, not the prefiguring type of Christ in the Bible.
As a rule, Lewis sticks to what he, and a great many in his wake, calls “mere Christianity.” That is, he tried as a rule to stick to those things that Christians had held in common for twenty centuries, and while a couple of clarifications to this might be given, in The Chronicles of Narnia Aslan appears somewhat as a traveler from afar; the question of who Aslan’s mother might be and what significance she might hold is never even whispered and the reader is drawn into the narrative in such a way that the question probably never arises in the reader’s mind. And with a nod of recognition to the fact that the Chronicles of Narnia are not a deliberately concocted allegory (and that it betrays a profound misunderstanding to read the book as a coded catechism), there is a reason the reader is never invited to even think about Aslan’s mother: the question of who Christ’s mother is, how great or small, and what it means for her to be great, has been an area of disagreement among Christians. Orthodox venerate her primarily as Mother, Catholics as Virgin, Puritans saw an ordinary mortal woman who is not to be venerated on pain of idolatry, and perhaps many Protestants today see as an “agree to disagree” matter, that is, not an essential question to Christianity. With obscure exceptions, Lewis rarely if ever discusses the place of the Mother of God and Ever-Virgin Mary, because “mere Christianity” such as he tried to limit himself to meets a bit of obstacle in the question of who is Mary and how we should relate to her, because there has been no “mere Christian” agreement such as Lewis argues, and the question is significant enough that any stance in it is profound, specifically including “It’s been centuries now. Can’t we just agree to disagree?”
I should like to clear away a distraction now and say that I am not bothered by Lewis’s portrayal of devils, nor am I bothered by the presence of devils in the fictional work corresponding to The Abolition of Man, in which devils are not explicitly mentioned. In thatsense the fictional portrayal is, if anything, more true than The Abolition of Man, as the project and doctrines critiqued in The Abolition of Man are, to put it bluntly, inspired by diabolical plans. To anyone who objects to the discussion of devils in Lewis’s work, I would say that Lewis understands spiritual struggle and his discussion of devils is true to the mark, or more pointedly that the one work which is the Orthodox Church’s canonical anthology of post-Biblical spiritual classics is the Philokalia, and the Philokalia spends more time discussing devils and their operations than any other work I’ve read. The fact that Lewis portrays diabolical plans as impinging on human history is no irresponsibility as a novelist, nor need it be chalked up to poetic conceit. If Lewis were to deny that his story of a diabolical assault on the earth were an unreal kind of story to tell, plenty of Orthodox at least might say that even if Lewis were to present it as a poetic conceit, it is no more a fantastic kind of thing to introduce to a story than Mary and Jane Studdock’s getting hungry and tired.
Now the book, being labeled “a fairy-tale for grown-ups” by its author, should be given room for poetic license. However, amidst explanation of things that are mere Christianity and which were already under attack when Lewis wrote the book, is separated by no clear divider by Lewis from the less popular elements of mere Christianity that he defends. And these speculations are not Orthodox, nor Catholic, nor Methodist, nor Calvinist, nor Anabaptist, nor any major thread of what he considered mere Christianity, but occult in character, and these may be the most seductive passages in a book that seduces well enough with Truth. A discussion surrounds Merlin and related topics:
What exactly he [Merlin] had done there [in Bragdon wood, where he was believed to be in suspended animation under a university campus] they did not know; but they had all, by various routes, come too far to either to consider his art mere legend and imposture, or to equate it with what the Renaissance called Magic. Dimble even maintained that a good critic, by his sensibility alone, could detect the difference between the traces which the two things had left on literature. “What common measure is there,” he would ask, “between ceremonial occultists like Faustus and Prospero and Archimago with their midnight studies, their forbidden books, their attendant fiends or elementals, and a figure like Merlin who seems to produce his results simply by being Merlin?” And Ransom agreed. He thought that Merlin’s art was the last survival of something older and different—something brought to Western Europe after the fall of Numinor and going back to an era in which the general relations of mind and matter on this planet had been other than those we know. It had probably differed from Renaissance Magic profoundly. It had possibly (though this was doubtful) been less guilty: it had certainly been more effective. For Paracelsus and Agrippa and the rest had achieved little or nothing: Bacon himself—no enemy to magic except on this account—reported that the magicians “attained not to greatness and certainty of works.” The whole Renaissance outburst of forbidden arts had, it seemed, been a method of losing one’s soul on singularly unfavorable terms. But the older Art had been a different proposition.
But if the only possible attraction of Bragdon lay in its association with the last vestiges of Atlantean magic, this told the company something else…
The paragraph may make some readers want to read the book. Now I can accept something like Lewis’s poetic conceit, if it is poetic conceit. I do not see the division between Merlin’s age and our own, or whatever older thing there may have been that had a last survival in Merlin’s age. Animism or old-fashioned paganism are different from the Renaissance magus or today’s neo-Pagan as a virgin is different from a woman divorced. The man who practices the animism he learned at his mother’s knee as a member of his tribe or clan is a very different picture from the Renaissance magus, who bears a sword with which to cut through their society’s Gordian knots, and a messianic fantasy with it. The traditional animist is embedded in the fabric of his society’s existence; the Renaissance magus stood over and against society, viewing it as a rather despicable raw material to be used in Utopian plans; it is the Renaissance magus whose mantle left behind has created what we now know as political ideologies. “(though this was doubtful) been less guilty”: animism and Renaissance magic alike put men in thrall to devils, and one hears of a missionary starting to converse with a local who knew the Bible, and nervously being pulled aside, and rightly told that he was a witch doctor. But I had rather find myself in the company of the traditional animist, who had no messianic fantasy about how to transform the world, than a magus. And in that qualified sense I agree to a point that is connected to Lewis’s, even though it differs and may differ significantly.
There are phrases and sections that give a thrill. At one point it is mentioned that Ransom’s company has a knowledge of XYZ point of Arthuriana that orthodox Arthurian scholarship would not reach for several centuries. But when I look at things in the book that thrilled me most, they seemed if anything to be poisoned. A lost world is a haunting reality; this is true of any finished epoch in history but the Atlantean society and magic Merlin represents are doubly exotic.
The blaring obvious
Perhaps most obvious of the ways that the story is occult is its Arthurian themes. I have read quite a lot of medieval Arthurian legends by today’s standards, quite a lot: the Brut, Chrétien de Troyes, and Sir Thomas Mallory, but that only scratches the surface of even just the medieval tellings. The best way I can think of concisely describing Sir Thomas Mallory’s Le Morte d’Arthur is as a terse thousand page synopsis of the library’s worth of sources Mallory himself read. Now any serious student of the Arthurian legends will acknowledge that Mallory didn’t just abridge; he made transformations of his work and rendered cycles of romances to be a little more like a novel. And I wrote my own riff on the Arthurian legends in The Sign of the Grail, and the best way I can describe that is that I tried to write a Christian treatment of the Arthurian legends, and even in my successes I found the thing I was attempting was impossible. (I have not read Robert de Borron, arguably the medieval author I should most have read as he made the most effort to draw the legends into the Christian fold.) And there are things absent from the narrative that are abundantly present in the legends: the Puritan critique I am aware of is not that magical phenomena lurk around every corner and supply practically every plot device, nor the married flirting of courtly love (my brother years ago asked me, “If [Sir Lancelot]’s such a great knight, how come he has a crush on the queen?”), or for that matter of open adultery such as the story of Tristram and Yseult that was drawn into Arthurian orbit, but rather the Puritans raised objections to unending pages of open manslaughter. I would, off the cuff, place the combats between knights as at least half of Mallory and easily half of the Brut, as combat with it being a frequent occurrence for two mighty knights to hack each other to death’s door and be well a fortnight later. In that regard the legends are comparable to a U.S. R-rated action-adventure movie: there may be sex, but the bulk of the R comes from violence.
But the Arthurian legends are deeply occult, and it takes no heresiologist who has studied occult symbols to find treacherous occult symbolism behind seeming innocence. It is plain on a naive reading that magic and magical phenomena is a pillar of Arthurian foundations. And at the risk of a daft comparison between Lewis and myself, I will mention that Lewis also neglects completely the interminable fighting of medieval Arnold Schwarzenegger movies, and the central Arthurian figure Lewis brings is not Ransom (who has enough transcendence and wonder of his own), but Merlin, who is the riveting center of attention in the company of Ransom before he is awakened and even more rivets attention on himself once he has entered the picture in the most direct sense. One definition of a rounded character in literature is not about having such-and-such many attributes defined, but of believably surprising the reader. Lewis’s Merlin is perhaps the most concentrated character in believable surprises in all of the literature I have read; he far eclipses the other characters, even Ransom, in a book whose characters are rounded enough. That Hideous Strength represents the culmination of a trilogy of which the first two books are not in particular Arthurian; Lewis does a deft job of shifting courses between Out of the Silent Planet to Perelandra, where the Unman appears and tells his tales to an Unfallen Eve, although here, even as he uses the symbolism of Mars and Venus much as John Gray does, he has two genders. In That Hideous Strength he discusses “the Seven Genders” in a way unconsciously unsettling to someone who had embraced his use of astrological symbolism in Perelandra the two genders covered are in fact two basic realities we would do well to acknowledge; in That Hideous Strength this is diluted and the genders represent more seven generic qualities than gender or sex as we know them; this is no gender rainbow, or at very least no conscious gender rainbow, but it muddies the foundation laid in Perelandra. And when Lewis joins That Hideous Strength to the other two, deftly, he incorporates an element that is arguably more occult than the stories or supernatural plot element to be found in the other two books. He welds in the Arthurian legends, and the central Arthurian character in the book is the most magical, the Devil’s son (though this attribution is denied in the text). And the result is more occult than the astrology, which a perceptive reader of Lewis and the Middle Ages—and not the average Joe C.S. Lewis fan—is not about what is called (in a muddy term) “judicial astrology,” the casting of horoscopes to inform a day’s decisions, but something more like a worldview where the influences of the planets did the job of science as an overall enterprise, and “judicial astrology” was more like the specific application of science in engineering: perhaps a valid distinction if Lewis was writing for other medievalists only, but a subtle and not-at-all-obvious distinction given the fact that C.S. Lewis was probably the twentieth century’s best loved Christian author and Perelandra and That Hideous Strength were written for a reading public who had no clue of the distinction between today’s (judicial) astrology and the outlook represented by medieval astrology as a whole. C.S. Lewis did write, I believe in the well-named The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature, that people in the Middle Ages or more probably the Renaissance would be astonished that astrology was lumped in with magic by readers today: magic asserted human power, while astrology asserted human impotence. Any number of such subtle distinctions can be made, but they are overly fine to the majority audience of the twentieth century’s most popular Christian writer, the overwhelming majority of whom do not have enough history to understand how you can use and apparently endorse major astrological themes without being in the same league of the “Star Scrolls” sold in vending machines that I as a little boy wanted so much and my mother firmly forbade.
Now it may be asked, “Did you not read the label? Lewis offered a fairy tale for grown-ups.” And this categorization both is and is not true; it seems to represent a fair description where categories break down. The characterization and plot are those of a modern novel; the only novel-length book I have read that I would characterize as a fairy tale is Phantastes, by Lewis’s role model, George MacDonald. Psychological as opposed to a more mythic motivation moves all of the characters; Lewis does deal in archetypal characters and fills The Chronicles of Narnia with the repentant traitor, the apostate: but he does not deal in the minutia of their psychology. He does deal with the minutia of how Mark Studdock comes to reject the N.I.C.E. and of how Jane Studdock refuses to be open to the embrace of a child. Of my own writing, The Fairy Prince hovers on the allegorical, and does not hover over the minutia of its characters’ psychology even when a profound change is implied. Firestorm 2034 is speculative fiction, looks at its characters’ psychology, and I would only with reservation call it a fairy tale. (If I were to choose a term for it, it would be “culture fiction”, a term applicable to some degree to most of my fiction.) If I were to bring a paragraph’s description of That Hideous Strength into a fragment of a sentence, I’m not sure I could do better. But That Hideous Strength is a novel, some of the best speculative fiction around, but not a fairy tale.
And all of this is beside the point. The basic moral question that I raise here is, “Does That Hideous Strength arouse a haunting lust for things occult?” And if it does, this represents a flaw, whether or not it may also be called a fairy-tale for adults. Arousing impure desire is a flaw to Christian writing, and this is not just true of sexual lust. There are other lusts around, and merely sexual lust is somewhat dwarfed by lusting for magic (or, really, magick), which is properly called an unnatural vice. And this latter thirst is a propeller inThat Hideous Strength.
A complication: Turning back the clock?
The rough draft as I created it had a section that I later took out; partly because it was loosely connected with the main point as originally envisioned, and partly because a friend’s disagreement suggested that it might be a liability to include. After thinking further, I wish to re-include it:
There is some speculation in the book that, if not specifically occult, is at least speculation and not mere Christianity:
“But about Merlin?” asked Mrs. Dimble presently.
“Have you ever noticed,” said Dimble, “that the universe and every little bit of the universe, is always hardening and narrowing and coming to a point?”
His wife waited as those wait who know by long experience the mental processes of the person who is talking to them.
“I mean this,” said Dimble in answer to the question she had not asked. “If you dip into any college, or parish, or family—anything you like—at a given point in its history, you always find that there was a time before that point when there was more elbow room and contrasts weren’t quite so sharp; and that there’s going to be a time after that point where there is even less room for indecision and the choices are even more momentous. Good is always getting better and bad is always getting worse: the possibilities of even apparent neutrality are always diminishing. The whole thing is sorting itself out all the time, coming to a point, getting sharper and harder…”
The Orthodox Church may know of a decisive turning point in the Incarnation of Christ, and perhaps others, but not of less elbow room by the year. If anything, in Orthodoxy in my time and locale, things are a free for all compared to the sharp Church discipline of the ancient church. Sins are lightly forgiven that would have a period of penitence of years’ exclusion for communion. There are multiple bishops in any number of cities, and while things might not usually match the
formerAnglican free for all in the Western Rite, today’s Orthodoxy looks like a madhouse compared to better times—until you recognize why nineteenth century Russia has been called a Gnostic wonderland with everything to satisfy damnable curiosities, and the great Christological Ecumenical Councils of the fourth century were called, not because there was a golden age, but precisely because of how serious the problems were. The state of Orthodoxy today may look like a madhouse by historic standards, but still a Heaven that has beckoned in Orthodoxy in every age beckons now. Despair is no more an option than the legalism of “True Orthodoxy” or “Genuine Orthodoxy.” There is if anything more elbow room today than historically, certainly more this year than last year.
Some qualifications may be needed: once one knows that Bultmann did not invent de-mythologing and over a millenium earlier St. (Pseudo-)Dionysius did a much better job of it, it is recognized as inappropriate to read Genesis 1 as meaning that God spoke with physical lips and a tongue. Certainly God commanded: but anthropomorphism of the Father is forbidden as icons of the Father are forbidden. (The interesting truth is not that the Father may not be directly portrayed, but that the Incarnate son may, and in fact should, be portrayed.) And likewise for actions. The entire process of maturity includes a Vinedresser who prunes branches, and part of this pruning is that some things may not be done. As St. Paul famously said, “But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away. When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put childish things behind me.
And there are other things that could complicate things. Christ counterculturally held a child as the model for entering into the Kingdom; when he chose his disciples, the last, “as one untimely born” (i.e. as a miscarriage) had top-notch scholarly learning; apart from St. Paul, Christ selected a diverse group of apostles who were children as far as book-learning was concerned. But more to the point, if we accept the process of maturity as described in the paragraph above, it must be remarked that this is a truth of personal development: I as a child appropriately spoke, understood, and reason as a child, but my coming to an age to put childish things behind me do not mean that it is wrong for the youngest members of my parish to speak, understand as a child. And my childhood was not license for my grandparents to behave as befits a child. Things may grow sharper with people’s processes of maturity; or may not: but this is a personal process, not a universal law. And on the key point under discussion in this passage, concerning magic and the relationship between spirit and matter. I have suggested earlier, in contradistinction to Lewis’s timeline portrayal, that the opposite of the Renaissance magus is not a member of some almost-forgotten College of magic that has left traces on our literature, but was becoming extinct in the sixth century, but animism, as learned at a mother’s knee and as practiced by cultures since before recorded history and continues to be practiced today.
Let me quote more of the same passage:
“Everything is getting more itself and more different from everything else all the time… Even in literature, poetry and prose draw further and further apart.”…
“But about Merlin. What it comes to, as far as I can make out, is this. There were still possibilities for a man of that age which aren’t for a man of ours. The Earth itself was much more like an animal in those days. And mental processes were more like physical actions.”…
“No. I had thought of that. Merlin is the reverse of Belbury. He’s at the opposite extreme. He is the last vestige of an old order in which matter and spirit were, from our point of view, confused. For him, every operation on Nature is a kind of personal contact, like coaxing a child or stroking one’s horse. After him came the modern man to whom Nature is something dead—a machine to be worked, and taken to bits if it won’t work the way he pleases… In a sense Merlin represents what we’ve got to get back to in some different way…”
My Orthodox response, is “That’s not what Rome would call a doctrinal development. It’s a Western perversion.” Regarding the first point on literature, we are indeed more specialized but as regards Bible translation we are worse. The King James Version is my preferred translation when I am reading in English, even though I have read any translation I wanted to. Someone has said, “The problem with the King James Version is the translators’ shaky grasp of Hebrew; the problem with all modern translations is the translators’ increasingly shaky grasp of English.” The issue Lewis was concerned about in The Elephant and the Fern Seed has changed only by further specialization. And the difference between the King James Version and modern translations is that the King James Version is the work of Renaissance men, polymaths who were both scholars of original languages and wordsmiths in their own right, and often quite devout. By contrast, the average modern Bible translator is a specialist of the sort Lewis raised concerns about in The Elephant and the Fern Seed, a specialist in ancient language and culture who is no published wordsmith at least. This is not a good thing, and that is part of why even though the King James Version used language that was old-fashioned when the translation was new, it has not been superseded in quality, even though the NIV (Now Indispensable Version) has exceeded it in current sales. Poetry and prose indeed grow further apart, to their detriment. Part of why G.K. Chesterton has his own following is that his prose never really leaves poetry behind; I’ve seen a Calvinist quote a passage from Chesterton that explicitly condemns Calvinism, partly because even though it condemned his beliefs it brought together the best of poetry and prose and bore a truth he could (in general) recognize. Now it may be commented that half-poetic prose is rare and Chesterton is significant partly as an exception. I would not contest the point. But however much the separation of poetry and prose may be a fact in Western historical development, it is not history sharpening all things, nor is it permanent. Fashions in education today may well create super-specialists far more than generalists, but my point is that this is a shift in fashion, and a point of how Western history has played out, but not the next step in the world’s process of improvement.
And a similar, but deeper, disturbance is in the difference between Merlin’s coaxing and stroking compared to the modern man’s view of a machine that is to be pulled to bits if it does not satisfy. And on that score Merlin is not a member of a College that was vanishing even in late antiquity, but a figure who agrees with Orthodoxy about the nature of Creation. Not, of course, in any sort of magic being lawful. But given the basic options of coaxing and pulling to bits, the Orthodox relationship is that of coaxing, and I tried to commit to writing how Orthodox view Creation in “Physics.
To give a hint and just illuminate things a little, I would comment that the more devout or higher up in the heirarchy a person is, the better with animals. It is a commonplace that animals, including wild animals, do not disturb monastics. I do not ask you to believe it, but even one journalist talked about eating lunch at Mount Athos, having a monk tell visitors not to worry about more than one boar in the bushes, and then telling his visitors, “Let me know when you’re done with your melons and other food, and I’ll give the signal.” So the people finished their lunches, threw down their melon rinds as expected, and then the monk spoke and the boars devoured the rinds and other food remnants (all of the while not harming any of the people). Less spectacularly, there was one monastery which I used to visit, and I am told, though I did not see this myself, that the deer would approach and eat from the monastics’ hands. I do know that I was visiting the monastery, in major deer hunting country where one wore a fluorescent orange hat and I lost count how many gunshots I heard, that two deer let another person and me approach within thirty feet of them. They slowly got out of our way after that, but they could have been keeping a whole lot more of a respectful distance than they did. The senior monk told me that the deer knew they were safe at the monastery. And even with domestic animals, I remember visiting someone and being told that the cat was bite-happy and would only settle down into the arms of clergy and monastics—I was advised to set the cat down. But I have in general been able fairly easily to make friends with animals—a dog that had been used as bait for pit bulls started by nervous barking, and ended by laying on his back in a condition of complete vulnerability, hoping for a good scratch. And I remember one time when a friend was moving in; all the rest of the friends were asked to carry things but I was handed the end of a leash and told the dog was uncomfortable and afraid of men. But even though at the beginning the dog was very clearly unhappy to be at the opposite end of his leash from me, I kept coaxing him by my actions and twenty minutes later he snuggled up with me, and to my astonishment approached the other men in our group, sniffing hands and otherwise making doggy efforts to make friends. I don’t believe this is some special or unique personal ability; clergy, monastics, and devout Orthodox faithful may or may not consider themselves good with animals, or even particularly interested in them, but when animals enter the picture, they are usually able to connect. In Lewis’s story it may be poetic conceit that Ransom can have a chat with Mr. Bultitude or a tiger and they would thereafter be safe enough company, but that bit of imagination is in continuity with something real, if perhaps less spectacular.
This account is inadequate, but part of the picture has to do with headship. “Headship,” as used in Evangelical circles, refers to a debate of whether a husband and wife are equal as regards authority or whether there is a relationship between husband and wife that is somewhat like that of the head and the body. To affirm it, in egalitarian circles, is taken to afford husbands a domination that greatly injures what is good for women. And the overall reply to that is perhaps not, as John Piper said, that the ways husband and wife serve each other mirror the ways Christ and the Church serve each other, and if this distinguished service is removed from marriage, marriage ceases to illuminate Christ and the Church. A better reply is to say, the full picture of headship is so far out of your orbit that it is probably pointless to press this point on its own.
There is a head-body relationship portrayed in Scripture and developed in the saints, which sees (this list is open-ended):
|Holy of holies||Sanctuary|
|Paradise||The rest of the inherited world.|
|That which meets God||Ordinary reason|
|Spiritual wisdom||Practical wisdom|
|Sunday, the Eighth Day||The whole sacred week|
|New Testament||Old Testament|
|Christ’s return in glory||Christ’s first coming with glory veiled|
|Spiritual Creation||Material Creation|
|The spiritual sense of Scripture||The literal sense of Scripture|
|But absolutely not|
The difference between the first long list and the second short list hinges on a single Greek word, katakurieuo used when Christ said that Gentile authorities “lord it over” those beneath them, but such is not permitted among Christians. And the term is not an exact match here; we are told in Genesis to domineer the creation, but there is a difference: domineering leadership can have a place and has to have a place (as, for instance, when a small child tests whether the rules are real), but there is an ocean of difference who domineers as a fierce medicine to free and nurture a disciple, and one who leads to make others an extension of his ego, or domineers to break a soul. And even when domineering is lawfully exercised, it is the exception, not the rule. The spirit of katakurieuo is the normal baseline in the Renaissance magus and mercy the exception; the servant leadership based on Christ is the normal baseline in all of these headships and an iron rod the exception. If there is an iron rod, it is much sooner applied to oneself than others—which is also not shared by the magus.
And there is a further point in St. Maximus the Confessor: all of these differences are to be transcended. In Christ there is no longer male nor female. In Christ even the distinction between created man and nature on the one hand, and uncreated God on the other, is transcended. The transformation reaches that far.
lost rejected dismantled in the Scientific Revolution
The birth of science was heralded through the metaphor of sexual violence to a woman, personified Nature. As to why this was, let me draw an analogy with marriage. Marriage is a profound thing and leaves an indelible mark, so that there is no way to hit an Undo and Reset button and simply restore the mere friendship that preceded the romance. And the very depth of its mark is attested to in the absolute misery of either side of a divorce, of feeling squashed like a bug, and pouring anger over everything in the relationship. Coarse jokes attest that you can’t simply wipe away a marriage and be where you started: “A wife is only temporary. An ex-wife is forever.”; “When two divorced people sleep together, there are four people in the bed.” The relationship can be torn apart, but it is deep enough of a thing that you can’t just reset it to how things were before.
Something as deep as a divorce with the older way of relating to Nature is found in early modern science, and that is why there are all the sexually violent lurid imagery about torturing and raping the personification of Nature. Mary Midgley, in Science as Salvation, argues:
It may be easier to see if we notice the way in which the pioneers of [scientific mechanist views] went about reshaping the concept of Nature. Very properly, they wanted to try the experiment of depersonalizing it. With that in view, the first step they surely needed to take was to stop using the feminine pronoun, or indeed any personal pronoun for ‘Nature’ altogether. But this was not done. We come to one more of the strange compensatory myths, dreams or dramas that are my theme. The literature of early modern science is a mine of highly-coloured passages that describe Nature, by no means as a neutral object, but as a seductive but troublesome female, to be unrelentingly pursued, sought out, fought against, chased into her inmost sanctuaries, prevented from escaping, persistently courted, wooed, harried, vexed, tormented, unveiled, unrobed, and ‘put to the question’ (i.e. interrogated under torture), forced to confess ‘all that lay in her most intimate recesses’, her ‘beautiful bosom’ must be laid bare, she must be held down and finally ‘penetrated’, ‘pierced’ and ‘vanquished’ (words which constantly recur).
Now this odd talk does not come from a few exceptionally uninhibited writers. It has not been invented by modern feminists. It is the constant, common idiom of the age. Since historians began to notice it, they have been able to collect it up easily in handfuls for every discussion…
This exceedingly foul imagery, persisting over time, attests to the durability and depth of the relationship that was being destroyed. Its vileness is like a divorce, ripping apart what cannot simply be dropped by dropping a personal pronoun. It is grieving, of a perverse sort: those who would object that for someone, “every operation on Nature is a kind of personal contact, like coaxing a child or stroking one’s horse,” can’t undo that relationship simply by dropping personification in speech in nature. The old relation to nature could only be dropped by ripping apart the persona of nature. Those who take Newton’s mathematical work to be a manual of rape may be wrong, but they are less wrong than you might think. And if Lewis’s fictional Merlin lived from “every operation on nature is a kind of personal contact, like coaxing a child or stroking one’s horse,” know that this is not a last survival in an ancient world of something far more ancient, but a common treasure held by East and West alike until centuries after the Great Schism, and held by the Orthodox Church today.
The lot of de-mythologizers
Is there room for the de-mythologizing discipline of science? Orthodox are on very shaky ground to dismiss de-mythologizing disciplines altogether. As was hinted at earlier, one of the most profound texts in the history of science is a profound and much more interesting de-mythologizing enterprise than the sciences founded with modernity, and with people who demean their discipline with the physics envy that says they are just-as-much-scientists-as-people-in-the-so-called-hard-sciences-like-physics (a claim that is very demeaning if is false, and much more demeaning if it happens to be true). The enterprise of de-mythologizing as we know it followed up a de-anthromorphized physics in Newton with a de-anthropomorphized psychology in behaviorists like Skinner. And no Orthodox can complain about de-mythologization as such; one of the most singular of the Church’s texts finds its climax in the words,
The fact is that the more we take flight upward, the more our words are confined to the ideas we are capable of forming; so that now as we plunge into that darkness which is beyond intellect, we shall find ourselves not simply running short of words but actually speechless and unknowing…
So this is what we say. The Cause of all is above all and is not inexistent, lifeless, speechless, mindless. He is not a material body, and hence has neither shape nor form, quality, quantity, or weight. He is not in any place and can neither be seen nor be touched. He is neither perceived nor is he perceptible. He suffers neither disorder nor disturbance and is overwhelmed by no earthly passion. He is not powerless and subject to the disturbances caused by sense perception. He endures no deprivation of light. He passes through no change, decay, division, loss, no ebb and flow, nothing of which the senses may be aware. None of all this can either be identified with it nor attributed to it.
Again, as we climb higher we say this. He is not soul or mind, nor does he possess imagination, conviction, speech, or understanding. Nor is he speech per se, understanding per se. He cannot be spoken of and he cannot be grasped by understanding. He is not number or order, greatness or smallness, equality or inequality, similarity or dissimilarity. He is not immovable, moving, or at rest. He has no power, he is not power, nor is he light. He does not live nor is he life. He is not a substance, nor is he eternity or time. He cannot be grasped by the understanding since he is neither knowledge nor truth. He is not kingship. He is not wisdom. He is neither one nor oneness, divinity nor goodness. Nor is he a spirit, in the sense in which we understand that term. He is not sonship or fatherhood and he is nothing known to us or to any other being. He falls neither within the predicate of nonebeing nor of being. Existing beings do not know him as he actually is and he does not know them as they are. There is no speaking of him, nor name nor knowledge of him. Darkness and light, error and truth—he is none of these. He is beyond assertion and denial. We make assertions and denials of what is next to him, but never of him, for he is both beyond every assertion, being the perfect and unique cause of all things, and, by virtue of his preeminently simple and absolute nature, free of every limitation, beyond every limitation; he is also beyond every denial.
However, this great classic needs to be placed today alongside a much lesser work such as is found in the following little chapter of the heart-warming Everyday Saints and Other Stories:
In Egypt, in whose ancient Christian past there had once been many grand monasteries, there once lived a monk who befriended an uneducated and simple present farmer. One day this peasant said to the monk, “I too respect God who created the world! Every evening I pour out a bowl of goat’s milk and leave it under a palm tree. In the evening God comes and drinks up my milk! He is very fond of it! There’s never once been a time when even a drop of milk was left in the bowl.”
Hearing these words, the monk could not help smiling. He kindly and logically explained to his friend that God doesn’t need a bowl of goat’s milk. But the peasant so stubbornly insisted that he was right that the monk then suggested that the next night they secretly ewatch to see what happened after the bowl of milk was left under the palm tree.
No sooner said than done. When night fell, the monk and the peasant hid themselves from the tree, and soon in the moonlight they saw how a little fox crept up and lapped up all the milk until the bowl was empty.
“Indeed!” the peasant sighed disappointedly. “Now I can see that it wasn’t God!”
The monk tried to comfort the peasant and explained that God is a spirit, that God is something so completely beyond our poor ability to comprehend in our world, and that people comprehend His presence each in their own unique way. But the peasant merely stood hanging his head sadly. Then he wept and went back home to his hovel.
The monk also went back to his cell, but when he got there he was amazed to see an angel blocking path. Utterly terrified, the monk fell to his knees, but the angel said to him:
“That simple fellow had neither education nor wisdom nor book-learning enough to be able to comprehend God otherwise. Then you with your wisdom and book learning took away what little he had! You will doubtless say that you reasoned correctly. But there’s one thing that you don’t know, O learned man: God, seeing the sincerity and true heart of this good peasant, every night sent the little fox to that palm tree to comfort him and accept his sacrifice.”
I cannot call this story the equal to the climax to St. Pseudo-Dionysius’s greatest work. I cannot. But in our de-mythologized age, we much less need to beat such a drum even more than see what the learned monk could not: that God accepted and drank the milk offered to him, perhaps by means of a fox. And we can show kindnesses to God when he suffers, perhaps in the person of our neighbor. It is a loss to say that God does not suffer when you are standing by a neighbor who is suffering and you can help. God does not suffer in himself, but he does suffer in our neighbor, and when we meet Christ’s Judgment Throne we will find that the way we treated the suffering is how we treated Christ. Really, most of us have more productive things to do than de-mythologize things further.
The temptation here is to campaign for a program of re-mythologizing life, to call out, “Stop burning down the rainforests in South America! Reforest the Sahara!” And, for reasons discussed in Exotic Golden Ages and Restoring Harmony with Nature: Anatomy of a passion, this is a solution worthy of a magus and a spiritual dead end. What we may have instead, on a much smaller nuanced level, is a layer of spiritual awareness. One monk, who for exceptional reasons was working not on Mount Athos but at a U.S. print shop, discussed the unstable and unreliable print machines, and he talked about massaging and coaxing, and how you do not curse a machine that will not cooperate: those curses are real and have an effect. And I would specifically point out that a machine is about as far as you can get for a matter-based machine, understood by the laws of physics, and such a kind of thing as an early modern scientist would project onto much larger screen. He was not, for instance, talking about how to coax a tomato vine in your garden. He was talking about how to handle a machine, and while I do not remember him using the word ‘love’, the upshot of his discussion was that even a machine is something you govern through love. And he did not present this in particularly romanticized terms; it was a matter of fact man describing what work was like.
“Mother” and “matter” come from the same archaic root; in earlier ages the distinction was not so sharp. And we would do well to look on this whole creation on us as our mother, much as when we step into a temple we are stepping into an icon. I do not wish to push the point too far, but in the absence of a magus-paradigmed reform programme, we can open the doors of our heart to God, to our neighbor, to Creation, to everything we are able to love, and let God work with us.
What more are we to do to a right relationship? I think it’s more of what sanctified relationships will do to us.